Scripture scholars have long discussed the content of today’s gospel passage in regard to the momentous event Jesus is speaking of. Is it the physical end of the world? Some of the language certainly sounds like the end-times language of the book of Revelation. But many scholars are agreed that these words depict the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. That event happened in AD 70 - some forty years after Christ’s death and resurrection, during the lifetime of many of those who were Christ’s original followers. The Jews rose up against their Roman occupiers but were mercilessly crushed. The Jewish people were scattered around the world – Jerusalem and the Temple were laid waste…and the repercussions of that event are still felt in today’s troubled Middle East.
Jesus describes this traumatic event in language that was meant to have a dramatic effect on his listeners and to lodge in their memories. But it isn’t just a warning about the destruction of the Temple. What is important for us today is that Jesus offers his followers a way to approach his second coming and the end times. Jesus warns his followers not to lapse or to be distracted from their prayers or from their confidence in him. Then, no matter happens: earthquake, flood, war, famine and so on, the followers of Jesus can be sure that they will have eternal salvation – this, far from being a dire prediction of disaster – is really a promise of liberation for all who follow Christ.
St. Paul gives similar advice to the people of Thessalonika in his letter, part of which we heard as our 2nd reading this morning. And Paul’s advice is as sound for us as it was for these early Christians. Our lives as Christians will not be well lived unless we keep continue to progress by striving to love one another more and to become more Christ-like each day. Using Christ’s language, we are called to “stay awake”…to be “attentive”.
Now, all this talk about desperate times may seem a bit odd at the beginning of Advent – when the rest of society is busily putting up decorations and telling us to spend on money on this, that and the other thing…shopping malls with eternal loops of Christmas Carols assaulting our ears…Why, when we are beginning our preparations for Christmas, has the Church decided to give us such a gloom laden gospel reading?
Well, the Advent season has always had a dual focus – we prepare for Christmas, the celebration of Christ’s first coming among us. But we also think about the 2nd coming of Christ, when God’s kingdom will finally be fulfilled and God’s plan of salvation for the whole of creation reaches its ultimate completion. So for the first two weeks of Advent the scripture readings and the Mass prayers point us toward this 2nd coming – we are to wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ. And I guess – waiting is not something we do very happily – in the queue at the checkout, to get onto an aeroplane, waiting for a friend to call us, waiting for the children to come home from a date…we don’t ‘wait’ all that well at the best of times – and yet NOW – we are to wait in joyful hope for this Saviour to come. And our waiting is to be coloured by prayer, attentiveness, and patience.
Today’s gospel reminds us how much we need a savior – someone who can turn the most desolate of situations into victory. Someone who can help us survive any worst-case scenario. Someone who can provide salvation when we most need it. Even the prophet Jeremiah speaking some 600 years before the birth of Jesus, recognized that this savior would come. So we commence Advent aware of this need for a savior and look forward to his coming in glory.